CATCH A RISING CZAR:
Everybody -- including the president -- wanted a piece of
'Please, wait for me. I will talk with you, like I promised,'
Marat Safin, the new U.S. Open champion, told a reporter as
Safin was being hustled between three interview rooms in Arthur
Ashe Stadium. Before gangs of international TV crews and print
journalists, Safin recounted his dramatic victory over Pete
Sampras in the final in all three of the languages that he
speaks (Russian, Spanish, and English, in descending order
Safin was then whisked away to Louis Armstrong Stadium to
pose for official USTA photos, stopping along the way to sign
autographs and have a picture taken with the Tennis Centerï¿½s
night cleanup crew. Finally, four hours after the final, he
hit the locker room for a few one-on-ones. First up, a phone
call from President Clinton. But before he could speak to
the leader of the free world, Safin had a prior obligation
to fulfill: an ITF drug test. Talk about your pressure to
perform! And Safin was flunking.
'Whatï¿½s the matter,' asked one reporter on the scene, 'canï¿½t
squeeze out something for the President?'
After that mission was finally accomplished, the 20-year-old
Russian was ready to take Clintonï¿½s call. 'I look forward
to visiting you at your White House,' he said. In an era when
menï¿½s tennis is often criticized for a shortage of engaging
personalities, Marat Safin isnï¿½t your run- of-the-mill Grand
Slam champion. And itï¿½s not just his cover-of-People good
looks that set him apart from the ATP pack. Rather, itï¿½s his
refreshing candor and wonderfully self-effacing sense of humor,
made all the more endearing by his sometimes problematic English
syntax. Heï¿½s easily the most colorful European player since
Goran Ivanisevic, that malapropian philosopher from Split,
Croatia. Safin, himself a fan of Ivanisevic, doesnï¿½t dispute
the comparison: 'I think Goran was like this from the beginning.
He didnï¿½t just become crazy when he was on ATP. The same like
me, yes? I was like this already.'
Safin was also sharp enough not to miss a beat when a reporter
asked him a question from out of left field: 'So, Marat, who
would you want to be your partner if you were on the Survivor
'For sure, Macaulay Culkin.' 'Huh? OK. The Home Alone kid.
'He showed he could get out of danger at such a young age.
Heï¿½s older now and must be a much more clever guy to help
me survive.' He shot the questioner a grin that said, 'Is
good answer, no?'
Safin has a tendency to discount his considerable appeal.
When asked about the ATPï¿½s New Balls, Please marketing campaign,
which is intended to make stars of Safin and other young players,
he said, 'Itï¿½s very nice, but [fans] want to see Pete, they
want to see Agassi.'
To support the hypothesis that heï¿½s a 'nobody,' he explained
that at least one official at the U.S. Open seemed completely
unaware of his existence.
'They didnï¿½t even know me in, how you say, transportation
desk. I say, ï¿½Please, can I have a car to come to the stadium?ï¿½
'What's your name?'
'Can you spell it, please?'
'Next time, I will go with sign,' he says, pointing to his
forehead: Iï¿½M MARAT SAFIN. So people can remember me.'
-- Warren Florence